Refugee camps teeming with a new generation of youth who are stateless
Posted Friday, April 1 2011 at 22:00
- Two decades ago, Somalia collapsed, discharging hundreds of thousands of refugees into Kenya. Now the first generation of children born in the refugee camps is 20 years old. Yet none of them has identity papers of any particular country. Their IDs read “aliens”. Now there is concern that this generation risks being stateless.
Darkness came at high noon for thousands of boys and girls born of refugees in camps in northern Kenya. Now in the prime of their youth, they hardly know where they belong. They suffer an identity crisis.
Asked whether he is Kenyan or Somali, Abdi Aziz Mohamed stares into space, unable to hazard a guess. “I don’t know. When people are being recruited (along nationalities) you find yourself empty, you have nowhere to go or associate with”.
Up and down the sweltering dried up river beds, running after polythene balls, these youths cannot perform their civic duty because they can hardly lay claim to a particular country.
Ideally, Mohamed — and the rest of the 200,000-odd children born of refugee parents since the early 1990s when Somalis and Sudanese runaways flooded Kenya — should be part of his motherland’s destiny, or Kenya’s future.
Yet this is not the case.
Mohamed was born at Utange, a refugee camp that has since been demolished at Kenya’s coast, of Somali parents forced out of their country by the factional wars that followed the ouster of then strongman Siad Barre exactly 20 years ago. He now lives at Kakuma, a sprawling tin camp in Turkana, which holds 82,000 mostly Sudanese and Somali runaways.
The 15 square kilometre camp is arguably the world’s most cosmopolitan refugee base, providing a home to Sudanese, Somalis, Ugandans, Congolese, Ethiopians and Burundians. It hosts thousands of youths — including Mohamed’s deskmate Anisa Mohamed (18).
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 10,000 children are born in Kenyan refugee camps every year. Thus 200,000 have been born since 1991. A number have been relocated to third countries but the majority remain in Kenya, all without the requisite identity of their states.
Kenya hosts about 360,000 refugees from 24 countries, including faraway places like Sri Lanka, Gaza Strip, Iraq, Côte d’Ivoire and even Egypt. The UNHCR has coordinated their welfare and survival.
Food rations apart, they enjoy education, medical care, security and even the hope that peace will return to their countries, according to the agency spokesperson Emmanuel Nyabera.
Mohamed’s fears cannot be unlikely. He turns 18 this year — an age so symbolic in life, an age where one assumes voting rights and, in many countries, a time in life when one is declared “adult”. But in the sweltering heat of Kakuma, glued to a bench under a shed in a school where every student boasts of being a foreigner yet terrified they have never been to their countries, Mohamed says: “I don’t know whether I have a country. Kenya refused me citizenship papers despite being born here”.
He is “stateless”, say scholars and human rights experts. Indeed, in official jargon, this Form Four student of Kakuma Secondary School is “(one) who is not considered as a national by any state through its legislation or constitution”, based on definition by the Refugee Consortium of Kenya.
Simply, he cannot lay claim to neither Somalia, his motherland, nor Kenya, his birthplace. He has known only one government — the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
And for refugees in Turkana County, their “country” is Kakuma and for those in Garissa County, it is Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp with about 390,000 people.
In an attempt to explain statelessness, legal experts and scholars place the situation into categories: De jure and de facto statelessness. The first case draws persons who have no recognised state and this could include refugee children born away from home whose parents lack identification of their homeland.
The second, de facto statelessness, describes those who may have a claim to their homeland but cannot assert their nationality because of various reasons, which could include internal conflicts.
Somehow, defining statelessness is a bit difficult — even for legal experts. They tend to link it to “citizenship”. Yet although the two expressions are very close, they are hardly the same thing. Statelessness is used to explain “belonging”. A citizen is “a native or naturalised member of a state or other political community”.
Yet both are about “membership and participation; rights; responsibilities; and equality of status, respect and recognition,” says Ruth Lister in an article Why Citizenship: Where, When and How Children?